Science & Tech

Looking at ‘spoiled’ Americans through an energy lens

5 min read

In 1968, the United States was exporting oil. A decade later, given massive increases in domestic demand, it was importing half of this coveted fuel.

By June 1979 this dramatic change — from supplier to buyer — created an oil shock that rolled across the nation.

By the Fourth of July, high prices and low supplies had spawned a national disaster. Members of Congress, facing long gas lines and short tempers, were afraid to go home.

Historian Meg Jacobs, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, is using the lens of this energy crisis to examine governance in a conservative era. In particular, she is looking at how leaders from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have reconciled their anti-government ideologies with the demands of actually governing.

Jacobs, who teaches 20th century American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared her research in a lecture last week (May 13) at the Radcliffe Gymnasium.

Her forthcoming book, “Panic at the Pump,” uses energy policy as a central metaphor in a history of America’s presumed drift to the right over the past decades.

Jacobs, a one-time postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Business School, tends to look at the past 100 years with an eye on dollars and cents. She is the author of the prize-winning “Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America” (Princeton University Press, 2005).

After all, Jacobs told her Radcliffe audience of 50, economic issues “are close to the center of changing relationships between citizens and government.” In the past century, she said, Americans have come to expect — to feel entitled to — a solid standard of living, with high wages and stable prices.

When that expectation is shaken, as in the Great Depression, Americans have come to expect — to feel entitled to — dramatic help from the federal government. It is the durability of that expectation, said Jacobs, that still acts as a check on America’s New Right.

Reagan abolished Carter-era checks on oil prices, for instance, she said — but could do little more to dismantle the regulatory machinery of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The DOE grew out of energy regulations promulgated during a foreshadowing of the oil shock, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973.

When DOE finally blossomed into a full federal agency, it had immediate power and momentum. “On opening day,” said Jacobs, the agency already had 20,000 employees and a budget of $10 billion.

At first, Jacobs thought her book on energy policy and conservative governance would record how the right took apart government. Instead, it became the story of the lasting stability of the federal government’s energy policy.

From Nixon on, she said — in an irony of history — American conservatives “oversaw a massive buildup of government they did not want.”

Jacobs counts among those conservatives President Jimmy Carter, a right-leaning Democrat whose values (and desire for less government) made him a “handmaiden for later Republicans,” she said.

Carter was a former Navy officer who feared the political implications of oil dependence, and whose religious values contained an ethic of conservation.

His response to the oil shock was dramatic and unconventional. On July 15, 1979, he gave a televised address now known as the “malaise speech,” scolding the American public for their lives of excessive consumption and spiritual void. “This is not a message of happiness,” he said, “but a warning.”

It was a failure, said Jacobs. “The public did not want to know they were spoiled and indulgent,” and on the streets the reaction was “panic at the pump.” At the polls, Carter’s ratings sank to 25 percent, lower than Nixon’s in the Watergate era.

Carter’s failure to communicate also muted some of his conservation ideals that today seem prescient. He wanted to raise the price of fossil fuel, encourage energy conservation at home (remember the cardigan sweaters?), and encourage alternative energy sources.

Carter was soon attacked from the left by presidential aspirant Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who accused him of being insensitive to high energy prices. And he was attacked from the right by conservatives incensed by the oil crisis — “Exhibit A,” said Jacobs.

Then came the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But Carter’s real stumble was domestic and economic, she said: a failure to keep oil flowing and prices cheap.

Victorious in 1980, Reagan capitalized on Carter’s failure, said Jacobs, “but that was different than Americans being anti-government.”

Yes: America’s shift to the right is real, she said. It comes from frustrations over issues of property, race, and religion; from a backlash at purported government intrusions (civil rights legislation, Great Society programs, welfare); and from presumed government incompetence (Vietnam, energy shortages).

But the shift to the right has been slowed and complicated by a durable thread in the fabric of American politics not yet fully appreciated, said Jacobs: “the reality of conservative rule in an era of New Deal ideas.”